Editor’s Note: Over the following months, WireTap magazine will publish interviews with Guatemalan Maya activists from the Association for Justice and Reconciliation looking to hold ex-dictators and military heads responsible for one of the hemisphere’s bloodiest civil conflicts in the modern era.
Last month marked the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords in Guatemala–an agreement that ended nearly four decades of extreme state-led violence. The army’s so-called “counterinsurgency” efforts, allegedly aimed at ridding the country of guerrilla combatants, claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people while displacing more than 1.5 million others, the overwhelming majority of whom were indigenous Maya.
Antonio Caba, an Ixil Maya activist who currently serves as president of the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), lives in the highlands of El Quiche–the Guatemalan state hardest hit by the military campaign. Some 344 of the 669 massacres committed by the army against Maya villages occurred within El Quiche; an estimated 14.5 percent of all Ixil Maya were killed.
Among the seven genocidios (the men who plotted and ordered the genocide) that the AJR is pursuing, the key figure is José Efraín Ríos Montt, an evangelical minister who rose to power via a military coup in 1982 and thereafter ruled over what became the most violent chapters of the genocide. Under Ríos Montt’s similarly brutal predecessor, Romeo Lucas Garcia, male peasants were forcibly organized–into what were termed Self Defense Civil Patrols–to carry out military whims within their occupied villages.
In a climate of pervasive terror, the Civil Patrols became the lone form of organization allowed by the army in many communities–the only semblance of so-called civil society. In 1981, one out of every two adult men in Guatemala belonged to a Civil Patrol. Apart from using the civil patrollers to gather intelligence within villages and exploiting them as human shields in missions to hunt guerrilla in the mountains, the military–through credible threats on civil patrollers’ lives–forced indigenous men to participate in the violence.
By 1982, the military had perpetrated 130 massacres in El Quiche; civil patrols had taken part in 41 of them. All in all, under Rios Montt, the incorporation of civil patrols into state-led massacres doubled, accounting for 41 percent of all the army’s massacres, while the amount of victims to violence directed by the military in which the civil patrols participated more than tripled to 47 percent of those killed.
Ilom, the El Quiche village believed by many Ixil Maya to be the birthplace of their people, carries the unique distinction of having suffered a massacre on March 23, 1982–the exact day that a military overthrow unseated Lucas Garcia and soon replaced him with Rios Montt. Ilom is also the breathtaking hamlet that Antonio Caba calls home. Antonio was 11 years old when army soldiers, along with the civil patrol from the nearby La Perla plantation, gathered Ilom’s residents in the village plaza and murdered 96 of its men.